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Brazil's colonial towns

31 October 2012 by Luke McCormick

Brazil is the fifth-largest country on earth with an abundance of resources and a melting pot of peoples. It's a nation that's risen almost out of nowhere to become a 21st-century superpower, and is next in line to host both the World Cup and Olympic Games.

In a new four-part BBC series, WEXAS Honorary President Michael Palin sets off to discover a country whose time has come.

Michael begins in the northeast - where Europeans first settled and grew rich on slave labour. Here, the mix of indigenous people, African slaves, and relatively few Europeans created many of the characteristic elements of Brazilian life: food, dance, music and a multiplicity of religions.

In Sao Luis, European and African religious rituals come together in typically Brazilian celebrations, and Michael heads to the city's backstreets to find out about a ceremony based on a 200-year-old slave tale.

He visits one of the region's massive beaches - the country's great public playgrounds - before heading to the monster sand-dunes of the Lencois Maranhenses National Park.

In Recife, Michael tours the city's striking street art and sculptures, and in Olinda, he gets roped onto the dance floor in a country where everybody dances. Journeying inland, he gets a glimpse of the fast-disappearing world of old-style ‘vaqueiro' cowboys.

In Salvador, Michael has his fortune read by a priest who practises the local religion of Candomble. He tries his hand at African drumming, samples the Bahian cuisine of a legendary local chef, and is introduced to capoeira in one of the city's shantytowns.

Leaving Salvador, Michael passes sugar-cane plantations on route to a cigar factory, before finishing the first leg of his journey off the coast on a traditional saveiro boat.

Sailing Boat Brazil

To celebrate "Brazil with Michael Palin" here's a guide to the best of colonial Brazil.

Brazil's well-preserved colonial towns are atmospheric places to spend a few days, surrounded by elegant architecture and tangible history.

Olinda and Salvador in North Eastern Brazil are two of the most popular choices, while the mining towns of Ouro Preto and Tiradentes in Minas Gerais state are also not to be missed. But there are others, too, up and down the country, full of colourful festivals and fascinating local legends.

Brazil's colonial history began with the arrival of Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. British, French and Dutch traders soon seized opportunities to make their own mark on this vast land full of promise, and Jesuit missionaries set about converting the indigenous Brazilians to Christianity.

The colonial towns tell the history of the nation, from the planting of sugar plantations and the boom generated by the gold rush, to the slave trade and Brazil's struggle for independence.

The beautiful old colonial towns have narrow cobbled lanes and impressive plazas lined with mansions, churches and whitewashed town houses - and visiting them is a real highlight of a Brazil holiday.



Olinda is one of Brazil's best-preserved colonial cities, founded by the Portuguese in 1535 and later occupied by the Dutch. Its grand churches, gardens and cobbled streets are easily explored on foot, and form a fine backdrop for Olinda's spectacular Carnival celebrations. Frevo dancers, costumed groups from local neighbourhoods - blocos - and large crowds gather in the narrow streets for one of Brazil's best parties, drinking and dancing all week long.



Salvador - Bahia's sultry and sassy capital - is often included in tailor-made Brazil tours, owing to its colonial heritage, African-Brazilian culture and proximity to some of the country's very best beaches. The city is sometimes referred to as ‘Africa in exile' and this has contributed to Salvador's condomblé religion, samba music and the ballet-like martial art, capoeira - all of which originated in and around Salvador.

Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto - or ‘Black Gold' - was named after the darkened nuggets of gold mined nearby during the 18th century gold rush. Fine colonial buildings were constructed on the back of the gold boom, with artists and craftsmen such as the ecclesiastical painter Mestre Athayde and the master sculptor Aleijadinho producing some of their most impressive works here. The elaborate Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis, which showcases the talents of both men, remains a notable landmark in Ouro Preto, and is well worth seeing.



Tiradentes is, like Ouro Preto, one of Minas Gerais state's historic gold mining towns. It too has some carefully restored Baroque churches and whitewashed cottages built along steep cobbled streets, which clatter to the hoof-beat and trundling wheels of horse-drawn carriages - which are a popular way for tourists to see the hilly town. Riding the narrow-gauge steam train, which runs from the outskirts of Tiradentes to Sao Joao del Rei, 13 kilometres away, is also popular with visitors and local school children alike.

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